4gm: Getting down to it

Having presented fourth grade maths as a rallying cry, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Karlie and David have taken me up on it — to spectacular effect. David has XOs at the ready to hand out to the faithful, and Karlie has convinced a professor in Rochester to connect students to the project.

Guess it’s time to figure out what that project looks like, in a bit more detail than we’ve heretofore offered.

First order of business, though: if the notion of creating Sugar activities that connect directly to a larger educational framework and offer content, activity and skill assessment, all in self-contained modules that can be used for self-directed and self-paced learning, then join the Sugar mailing list for fourth grade maths.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way: what should we be *doing*, exactly?

Let me tell you what I’m doing, and why.

* * *

I’m working on a Sugar activity I call “Dungeons of Mongo”.

See, I’m a sucker for Rogue-like dungeon games. Always have been. Dungeons of Mongo will be a fork of a game called “Mines of Elderlore,” which is a Python-based Rogue-like. I’m just getting started, and it’s slow going, because for one thing I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like, and for another, I don’t know Python nearly as well as I’d like.

So what’s the point of this fork, then, anyway? Simple. Unlike MOE, Mongo will have an educational twist (albeit an admittedly corny one): you fight monsters with knowledge. Aw, yeah! BRING THE KNOWLEDGE! “You dare to attack the domain of the Fraction Troll, puny weakling human child? Well, riddle me this: in the fraction 3/4, what is the DENOMINATOR? 4, you say? Ack, that’s correct! Fie, I am stricken! Woe unto me, now I die!”

Brilliant, right? I know! Okay, maybe not. But it’s a start. One thing I do like about the dungeon metaphor is that it’s got that immersive, exploratory element to it — which is why I played so much Rogue and Nethack and Larn when I was younger. Sure, it’s no Second Life or WoW, but it hardly needs to be — and to run on a cheap netbook, couldn’t be anyway.

Somehow, I’ve got to fit the following four elements into this activity.

1. Content. One can imagine the Six Tomes of Fractions. (“What’s a tome? Oh, it’s a fancy word for book? Cool.”) Each tome has content that teaches a lesson, and each tome builds on the lessons taught in previous tomes. Maybe it’s words, maybe it’s pictures, maybe it even spins off an Ogg player — but I’m sure we will start simple. This is obviously where we’ll need the most help from teachers.

2. Drill. Practice, practice. Level grinding in an RPG can be pretty boring, but you do it because you want to see what comes next. What’s the next monster? What’s the next treasure? What cool thing is waiting on the next level? You’ve just got to know, so you fight enough monsters to get to that next level — and if you’re anything like me, you stay up until 3am to do it. Why shouldn’t drilling math concepts work the same way?

3. Assessment. In the end, does the kid know what 3/4 + 3/8 is, and does he know how to get there? In the classroom, that’s what tests tell us. Now, the thing about a pen-and-paper test in the classroom is that you give the same test to 25 kids exactly once, and the overhead of creating that test, administering that test, and grading that test is what takes a significant chunk of any teacher’s time. Doing it repeatedly is all but impossible, so if a kid falls behind, there’s no time to help him catch back up. But for certain classes of tests — especially math tests — the questions can be infinitely variable, administered by the Boss monster, and instantly graded pass/fail. If you slay the Big Boss at the end, you win! And if you don’t understand how fractions work, the Boss kills you, and you start over. What kid wants that?

4. Alignment. Remember: all of this stuff should align with a useful curriculum framework, or educators won’t have any incentive to use it. We’ve chosen to work with a derivative of the Massachusetts 4th grade math framework, so dungeon level one could be all about 4.N.1 and 4.N.2, and dungeon level two could handle 4.N.3 and 4.N.4, and so on.

5. Customizability. Ultimately, Mongo should be a simple game to model some simple ideas. If they are good ideas, then people will either customize Mongo or build their own games with similar ideas. If we do it right, it should be a trivial matter to plug in different content, different drills, and different assessments. Of course, because all content and code is open source — that’s the point, after all — people are free to rip off these ideas and move forward with them. And boy, do I hope that people do exactly that.

Needless to say, patches welcome. I’ve got a hosting request in the pipeline with fedorahosted.org to host Mongo; as soon as that goes through, I will upload what I’ve got so far. (Which, fair warning, isn’t much.)

A couple of other wrinkles I’m thinking about:

* I don’t know nearly enough about Moodle, but I should. The quiz data formats are especially interesting. Standards make life easier for everyone, and it would be nice to be able to take content from Moodle, or any LMS, and drop it into Mongo. My first targeted question format for Mongo will, in fact, be the Aiken format used by Moodle for simplified multiple choice questions. Human readable, easily parsed, somewhat brittle. I can live with that for now.

* I haven’t even bothered to Sugarize my work on Mongo yet, and because I haven’t tried to write a Sugar activity in, oh, two years, I don’t even know where I’d start. I hope that the instructions for Sugarizing a simple Pygame-based activity are clear and easy to follow. And if they aren’t, that’s obviously a worthy project for someone to undertake.

Anyway. That’s what I’m working on.

* * *

Now, what should *other people* be working on? There are basically two options. Option 1: help me with Dungeons of Mongo. Option 2: start another activity project aimed at fourth grade math, maybe with a completely different approach.

Notably, Mongo does not yet align directly with any of the fourth grade math framework objectives. The questions and content, for now, are placeholders. Someone could certainly work the content side in parallel.

If some enterprising people want to start another project, that’s great. The principles should be the same: modular activities that encapsulate content, drill and assessment, that allow a self-directed learner to demonstrate mastery of a particular unit of knowledge that is aligned to the 4gm (that’s my acronym for fourth grade math) curriculum framework. With a strong preference for Python, since that’s the heart of the Sugar principle of hackability. Python activities can be brought up in Pippy right now. Java applets can’t, and neither can Flash activities.

Whatever you do, potential contributor, don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Working code and loose consensus: that’s what moves open source software projects forward. Let’s get out there and screw something up. It is very dark, and if we don’t move forward, we are all likely to be eaten by grues.

(Don’t forget to join the list, where will be talking more about this in detail, and soon.)

4gm: Getting down to it

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